Football fans love to marvel at physical specimens such as Calvin Johnson and Kelvin Benjamin who can haul in deep balls over mismatched defenders. But the little guys can be just as effective at moving the chains, too.
Four of the NFL’s top six leaders in receiving yards (and six of the top 12) are less than six feet tall, and there seems to be a new crop of shorter receivers on the horizon. Diminutive rookies Brandin Cooks, John Brown and Taylor Gabriel have all caught go-ahead, game-winning touchdowns this season and proven that first-year wideouts don’t have to possess extreme height to acclimate quickly to NFL offenses.
In fact, research engine FindTheBest found that there are 14 active NFL players who are shorter than six feet tall and have 1,000 receiving yard campaigns on their resume -- and three of them just surpassed that benchmark for the first time in Week 12.
Below is a ranking of those receivers based on the following criteria: If your team needs a score to win in the final two minutes this Sunday, which receiver would you want your quarterback targeting on the game-winning drive?
Note: All statistics are through Week 12.
11. Kendall Wright, Tennessee Titans
2014 Stats: 44 receptions, 501 yards, four touchdowns
Career Stats: 202 receptions, 2,206 yards, 10 touchdowns
Wright had perhaps the quietest 1,000 yard season of any receiver last year. That’s probably because he only found the end zone twice, thus invalidating himself in the fantasy football world.
The former first-round pick -- a rare honor for a 5-foot-10 receiver -- has already tied a career-high with four touchdowns this season, but has regressed in terms of yards (501) and is hauling in just 59.4 percent of balls thrown to him after catching 67.1 percent of his targets last year.
10. Greg Jennings, Minnesota Vikings
2014 Stats: 40 receptions, 501 yards, three touchdowns
Career Stats: 533 receptions, 7,842 yards, 60 touchdowns
In his first year with Minnesota last year, Jennings had 804 yards and four touchdowns on 68 receptions with the likes of Christian Ponder, Matt Cassel and Josh Freeman as his quarterbacks. It’s also worth considering that even in Green Bay’s crowded stable of receivers, Jennings averaged 1,108 yards in five seasons from 2007-'11.
Bottom line: While the 5-foot-11 Jennings probably can’t put the team on his back anymore, he’s still at least a solid No. 2 receiver.
9. Wes Welker, Denver Broncos
2014 Stats: 34 receptions, 282 yards, two touchdowns
Career Stats: 875 receptions, 9,640 yards, 50 touchdowns
Welker's disappearance has been one of the more understated surprises of this season. Just last year, the 5-foot-9 slot receiver caught a career-high 10 touchdowns in 13 games during his first year with Peyton Manning and the Broncos. This season, Welker was suspended for Denver’s first two games after testing positive for amphetamine use and hasn’t really recovered.
Still, it seems as though Welker could be a dangerous piece in a different situation -- Denver might just have too many mouths on its stacked receiving corps to feed. Welker’s contract expires at the end of this season, and he should get another shot as a starting wideout elsewhere. And for those that say Welker has merely benefited from having Manning and Tom Brady as his quarterbacks: He also had 111 receptions for 1,165 yards and three touchdowns in 2008 with Matt Cassel throwing to him.
8. Emmanuel Sanders, Denver Broncos
2014 Stats: 76 receptions, 1,079 yards, seven touchdowns
Career Stats: 237 receptions, 3,109 yards, 18 touchdowns
The emergence of 5-foot-11 Sanders is one reason why Welker has been phased out in Denver. Sanders was a solid piece during his last two years in Pittsburgh, but he’s found another level in the Rocky Mountains. The SMU product topped the 1,000 yard mark for the first time on Sunday against the Dolphins, and also already has career highs in receptions and touchdowns.
7. Golden Tate, Detroit Lions
2014 Stats: 72 receptions, 1,047 yards, 3 touchdowns
Career Stats: 237 receptions, 3,242 yards, 18 touchdowns
Detroit signed Tate this offseason to complement Calvin Johnson, but was pushed into the lead flanker role a few weeks into the season after Megatron suffered a high ankle sprain. The 5-foot-10 former Golden Domer filled in better than anyone could have expected, compiling 24 receptions, 349 yards and two touchdowns in the three games that Johnson missed.
Like Sanders, Tate exceeded 1,000 receiving yards on Sunday for the first time in his career. Even though Detroit’s passing game was mostly contained by New England, Tate led the Lions with four receptions for 97 yards on a team-high 11 targets.
6. Randall Cobb, Green Bay Packers
2014 Stats: 58 receptions, 837 yards, 10 touchdowns
Career Stats: 194 receptions, 2,599 yards, 23 touchdowns
Cobb is on pace for 1,217 yards and 15 touchdowns this year, which are massive numbers for anyone, let alone a 5-foot-10 former college quarterback. Cobb's played receiver for Green Bay since being drafted in 2011 and progressively become one of the most dangerous deep threats in the league.
5. Julian Edelman, New England Patriots
2014 Stats: 70 receptions, 695 yards, 2 touchdowns
Career Stats: 244 receptions, 2,465 yards, 12 touchdowns
When Welker left New England for Denver, Bill Belichick apparently decided to simply transform Edelman – who had primarily been a special-teamer – into a Welker clone.
The 5-foot-10 Edelman topped 100 receptions and 1,000 yards for the first time last year and is on pace to repeat in both categories this season. He’s one of the NFL’s best slot receivers, and the Patriots have him locked up through the end of the 2017 season.
4. T.Y. Hilton, Indianapolis Colts
2014 Stats: 63 receptions, 1,083 yards, 4 touchdowns
Career Stats: 195 receptions, 3,027 yards, 16 touchdowns
It’s hard to imagine just how happy Hilton was back in 2012 when he learned he’d been drafted by the Colts two rounds after Andrew Luck.
In just his third season, the 5’9” Hilton has become one of the best all-around receivers in the league with Luck tossing him the pigskin. He has fully succeeded Reggie Wayne as the Colts’ top target, and ranks third in the NFL with 1,083 receiving yards as a result.
3. DeSean Jackson, Washington Redskins
2014 Stats: 42 receptions, 858 yards, 4 touchdowns
Career Stats: 398 receptions, 6,975 yards, 36 touchdowns
Jackson is, simply put, far and away the NFL’s best deep threat. The three-time Pro Bowler’s elite speed (4.35 40-yard dash) helps compensate for his height (5-foot-10). Even with inconsistent quarterback play from Robert Griffin III and Kirk Cousins this year, Jackson is on pace for more than 1,200 receiving yards. He leads the league with 20.4 yards per reception, and the gap between him and the second-best mark is equal to the distance between the second-best and the 16th-best average.
2. Steve Smith, Baltimore Ravens
2014 Stats: 49 receptions, 728 yards, 4 touchdowns
Career Stats: 885 receptions, 12,925 yards, 71 touchdowns
Smith might be close to the twilight of his career at 35 years old, but his uber-competitive demeanor and uncanny ball-catching skills in traffic still make him one of the best flankers in the league. Carolina let him go in the offseason, and Smith made them regret it with one of the most memorable revenge games in recent memory (seven receptions, 139 yards, two touchdowns).
Smith ranks 16th in all-time career receiving yards, and ranks behind only Andre Johnson and Reggie Wayne among active players. Smith should leap fellow undersized receiver Steve Largent into the top 15 within the next few weeks. Baltimore still has him signed for two more years, and it’s not too crazy to think that he could end up in the top 5. Not bad for a 5-foot-9 receiver who began his collegiate career at Santa Monica College.
1. Antonio Brown, Pittsburgh Steelers
2014 Stats: 88 receptions, 1,161 yards, 9 touchdowns
Career Stats: 349 receptions, 4,722 yards, 24 touchdowns
Brown (5-foot-10) leads the league in receptions and first downs (57) as Ben Roethlisberger’s favorite target, and ranks second in yards and targets (123) behind Demaryius Thomas. If he can continue his torrid pace, he could end up with one of the best seasons by any receiver not named after a Transformer this century.
Elite quarterbacks are usually favored in the chicken or the egg argument with talented receivers, but Brown is the most obvious reason for Roethlisberger’s 2014 renaissance. He makes the case that even the smallest of receivers can stilt up a quarterback’s performance.